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Panel OK's 2 rival wiretapping bills

Actions are seen muddying chance for final passage

Senate Armed Services Committee members (from left) John McCain, John Warner, and Lindsey O. Graham said yesterday that they will continue to oppose White House provisions to limit a defendant’s access to evidence if it is classified.
Senate Armed Services Committee members (from left) John McCain, John Warner, and Lindsey O. Graham said yesterday that they will continue to oppose White House provisions to limit a defendant’s access to evidence if it is classified. (Chip Somodevilla/ Getty Images)

WASHINGTON -- A divided Senate Judiciary Committee, muddying the outlook for an issue Republicans consider key to the midterm elections, passed two widely divergent bills yesterday aimed at overhauling domestic eavesdropping laws.

The committee endorsed a White House-backed measure that would give President Bush broad authority for his warrantless wiretapping program. At the same time, it approved legislation by Senator Dianne Feinstein, Democrat of California, that would largely preserve a 1978 law governing domestic spying while making few provisions for new executive powers.

While one lawmaker decried the Senate approach as ``totally contradictory," the House Judiciary Committee abruptly canceled a vote on its own version of the surveillance overhaul law amid signs of dissension among Republicans there.

Meanwhile, three GOP senators -- John W. Warner of Virginia, John McCain of Arizona, and Lindsey O. Graham of South Carolina -- underscored their opposition yesterday to an administration plan to reinterpret the Geneva Conventions as part of setting up procedures to try terrorism suspects before military tribunals. Graham said the proposal is ``not necessary and it makes me suspicious as to why we need to do it."

Meanwhile, the White House announced that Bush planned to make a rare personal visit to Capitol Hill today to confer with House Republicans and push his national security initiatives.

The White House said it was confident lawmakers ultimately would approve the measures Bush is promoting. But the growing disharmony over the president's tribunal plan drew warning shots yesterday from some administration officials.

In a conference call with reporters, John D. Negroponte, the director of national intelligence, warned that if an alternative version of the tribunal bill proposed by McCain passes, the CIA will be forced to shut down its interrogation program.

``The bottom line, if it goes forward as proposed, this will not allow for the CIA high-value terrorist detention program to go forward," Negroponte said.

The Judiciary Committee's eavesdropping vote was a rare rebuke for an administration that has tested the limits of executive power since the Sept. 11 attacks.

The panel's eight Democrats were joined by two Republicans -- Graham and the committee's chairman, Senator Arlen Specter of Pennsylvania -- in approving the Feinstein measure.

Specter has been the driving force behind the White House surveillance bill, which he brokered with Vice President Dick Cheney over the summer. But he said he voted for both bills -- he had previously been a sponsor of the Feinstein legislation -- because each had important attributes.

Some members of the panel, however, said the committee was passing the buck by sending multiple and conflicting legislation to the floor for a vote. A central premise of the Feinstein legislation was ``totally contradictory to legislation we just passed," said Senator Jon Kyl, Republican of Arizona. ``What kind of message does that send to our colleagues?"

Others said that the panel's action showed a lack of understanding of the issues at hand.

By moving along bills ``that are flatly contradictory, they are saying that they don't really understand what they are doing," said James Dempsey, policy director of the Center for Democracy and Technology, a Washington-based advocacy group. ``Throwing the issue open to floor debate in a partisan atmosphere is probably the worst possible way of resolving complex issues at the intersection of technology, national security and constitutional doctrine."

Under the surveillance program, the National Security Agency has intercepted communications between suspected terrorists abroad and people in the United States. It has been a flashpoint in the debate over liberty and security.

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